Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship
Content warning: domestic violence
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.
This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.
I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.
A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.
Polish folklore retelling with a feminist spin
I’ve spoken before about the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, and this was our most recent set book. We’ve been trying to read more diverse types of stories than your everyday medieval fantasy, and recently we’ve all taken turns to nominate a book to read.
“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik is a fantasy novel about a young woman called Agnieszka who was born in a tribute year. Every ten years, the wizard known as the Dragon selects a teenage girl to serve him in the tower that overshadows their village. Known for being clumsy and grubby, Agnieszka fully expects her beautiful and graceful best friend Kasia to be selected. As no girl ever returns to the valley, the pair prepare to say their farewells to one another. However, when things don’t turn out as expected, Agnieszka’s fate is changed forever. Not one for following the rules, when the eerie forest begins encroaching on her village, Agnieszka takes it upon herself to challenge the ancient power that threatens the kingdom.
This is an enjoyable and well-written story that brings to life a folklore tradition that I was not familiar with. Agnieszka is a fun, earthy character who stubbornly does things her own way to the extreme exasperation of the Dragon. I really enjoyed the interplay between the two characters as Agnieszka learns about her abilities and her own method of self-expression. Even though she wasn’t the main character, I really liked Kasia who brought a surprising depth to the story and helped bridge Agnieszka’s understanding of two worlds.
There were probably two main things that frustrated me about the story. The first was that towards the end there was a lot of action, and it did feel a bit like the book was going from scene to scene of action without a lot of character development. The second was the romance. Agnieszka and her romantic interest are separated for a large proportion of the book, and I did feel like that made the development of that relationship feel a little rushed.
Anyway, this was a lovely retelling of region’s folklore that doesn’t often get much airtime, and a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by dwarves and elves, vampires and werewolves. I think this would make a great holiday read.
Award-winning modern horror on everyday evil
Although this might not seem like a Christmas book, I first bought it from the author when she was selling her books at the Beyond Q Christmas book sale that they held a couple of years ago when they were based in Curtin. I bought a copy of this book from the author, which came with a super cute little handmade Christmas cracker and a bookmark made out of stamps, and it sat on my shelf for far too long before I finally read it. Just this year though, I interviewed the author about writing horror for a Halloween special episode of my podcast, and so it was definitely time for me to give this book a read.
“The Grief Hole” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novel about a young woman called Theresa who works as a domestic violence social worker. Theresa has a special but macabre ability: she can tell how you will most likely die. Increasingly haunted by the spirits of future death that surround her clients, she decides to start taking fate into her own hands with disastrous consequences. Traumatised, she moves away and takes up a job offer from an estranged relative whose daughter recently committed suicide. When the talented young artist’s death begin to emerge, Theresa is determined to prevent history repeating itself. However, when she discovers who exactly she is up against, Theresa is forced to examine her own motives.
This is an eerie and disturbing story that uses a thin overlay of the supernatural to explore good and evil, selfishness and selflessness in an otherwise very realistic world. Warren turns the themes of power and control inside out to examine questions of how much we determine our own futures and how much we must passively accept. She also asks whether our intentions can ever truly be pure, and whether we can ever truly know what the impact of our actions will be. Warren has a real knack for dialogue and for taking the everyday and making it horrifying. She maintains a palpable sense of unease throughout the entire book.
However, this book won’t be for everyone. Although it’s not blood-spattered, stereotypical horror it is very disturbing in its own way. I found quite a few parts of the book confronting and uncomfortable, and this is a book that lingers after you have read it. It is intentionally ambiguous and the reader will often feel like they are walking through a heavily rainy landscape unable to clearly see where they have been or where they are going.
A unique and unsettling take on the horror genre by a local Canberra author, it is not surprising why this book won so many awards and if you’re looking for something a little darker than normal, this would be a great book to check out.
The Grief Hole
Singaporean romantic comedy that pokes fun at the ridiculously wealthy
I had heard of this book a while ago, and meant to read it for one of my book clubs but didn’t quite get around to it. Then they made it into a film, and I thought – now’s the time. My mum had a copy and kindly lent it to me.
“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan is a romantic comedy novel set among the upper echelons of Singaporean society. When American academic Rachel Chu is invited to a wedding in Singapore by her boyfriend Nicholas, she thinks that it’s going to be a low-key, romantic trip where she finally gets to meet his family. However, Nick hasn’t been completely upfront with Rachel about just how wealthy, and snobby, his family can be.
This book is a self-indulgent romp. Kwan has a very funny, irreverent style of writing and has a real talent for capturing conversation and dialogue. He flexibly swaps between Rachel’s perspective, catty conversations and frenzied texting and seasons his novel with lush descriptions of almost imaginable wealth and opulence. Having been to a few extravagant weddings in Singapore and Indonesia, I have to say that some of his descriptions were not that exaggerated. I really enjoyed how Kwan explored some of the nuance of how people throughout the Chinese diaspora view one another, and how arbitrary and exclusionary class lines can be.
However, as fun and gossipy as this novel is, the main plot, which is told from the perspective of Rachel, does at times feel like its sole purpose was to facilitate Kwan’s anthropological study of the Singapore elite. She is a useful lens to examine these families and their behaviour, but from the first chapter to the last chapter Rachel does not change much at all and while there is no shortage of drama, it does feel like it comes at the expense of character development.
Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable book and one that would make a great holiday read.
Crazy Rich Asians
Steampunk round-the-world adventure
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“The Colonel and the Bee” by Patrick Canning is a steampunk adventure novel about a talented young acrobat called Beatrix who is trapped in a circus with an abusive ringmaster. When her skills are called upon to entertain some Swiss aristocrats, she seizes her opportunity to make her escape. She joins the enigmatic and rather promiscuous Colonel James Bacchus and becomes part of the crew of his enormous hot air balloon with four-storey accommodation called The Ox.
This is a rollicking story in the classic English adventure style where wit and ingenuity repeatedly save the day. Beatrix is a great character and I really enjoyed watching her character grow throughout the book. The interplay between her and the Colonel is very engaging and Beatrix slowly gains the confidence and friendships she needs to help solve the riddle and save the day. It is hard to tackle a genre and historical period that relies a lot on British imperialism, but I felt like Canning did a good job preserving the spirit of these types of stories while excluding some of the more racially problematic things typical of the time.
It is important to know that this is an adventure story, so it is action, action, action almost the entire time. I’m not huge on action novels, so my favourite parts were during the downtime when Beatrix and the Colonel were having heart to hearts on The Ox. I did find some of the action a little relentless, as enjoyable as the riddles and the intrigue was.
A new spin on a favourite style of story, this was a fun, enjoyable read.
The Colonel and the Bee: A Globe-Trotting Adventure
Romance novel set against the backdrop of a beautiful lake
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“The Road to Vermilion Lake” by Vic Cavalli is a romantic novel about Thomas, a first aid attendant and blaster’s assistant who is working on an enormous development project alongside a beautiful lake. Every time Thomas hears an explosion, he’s reminded of his ex-girlfriend, the gorgeous Sally, the first woman he ever kissed. However, his life becomes complicated when he meets Johnny, Sally’s sister and an architect on the lake development project. As he starts to fall for Johnny, Thomas wonders if he can grow to be the man she deserves and whether he can ever truly move on from Sally.
This novel is quite unusual in that it is purely romance, but told wholly from the perspective of a male character. Romance is typically considered a feminine genre, so it was a bit refreshing to read a romance novel where it’s a man who is angsting over what he says and does to make a relationship work. I thought Cavalli did a good job exploring the emotions around a new relationship and the transition from carefree young man to responsible, driven adult.
There were a lot of interesting elements to this story, but one thing that I thought was a shame was a missed opportunity to link two of these elements together. Without giving too much away, there was a character that Thomas’ friend met and a character in Johnny and Sally’s life that could have been connected and I did feel like it would have been brilliant to connect the two and have a bit more depth to the characters’ backstories.
An easy read and a gentle novel about the personal development and compromise required to make a relationship work.
The Road to Vermilion Lake
Quintessential historical fiction about the Tudors
Earlier this year I had grand plans to participate in the Man Booker 50 Challenge to celebrate 50 years of one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. I was going to try to read as many Man Booker Prize winners as I could by the deadline to go into the running for tickets to the Golden Man Booker Prize award night in the UK. Anyway, although I picked up a bunch of previous winners, I only managed to read one in time. The others stayed on my bookshelf, waiting for the right opportunity, and when I went on holiday recently I decided to take this one with me.
“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel is a historical fiction novel about self-made man Thomas Cromwell and his role in the court of Henry VIII. The story begins with Cromwell as a young boy in a dysfunctional family at the turn of the 16th century. The novel progresses in fits and starts and follows Cromwell’s rise to power and fortune as a lawyer, entrepreneur, moneylender and confidant to England’s most powerful people.
Given the popularity of books about the Tudors, I think it’s safe to say that this is the book about the Tudors. Mantel has an incredibly immersive and detailed style of writing, and transports the reader directly into the grand halls of Henry XXIII’s kingdom. She writes in first person which makes you almost feel like the story is happening in real time. She unravels the genius of Cromwell’s mind, and weaves a story of subtlety, opportunity and shifting alliances. I really enjoyed the depiction of Anne Boleyn, and incremental trade of intimacies between herself and the king.
I think probably the only thing that I struggled with is just the enormous amount of politics. I find reading about political intrigue a bit of a challenge at the best of times, and it’s a testimony to how good this book is that I managed to get through most of it pretty easily. However, considering this a book built almost completely on political history, occasionally it does feel a little bit relentless.
Anyway, this is one of those books that I feel absolutely did deserve a Booker Prize, and if you’re a fan of Tudor history this is the book for you.
Wolf Hall: Shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker Prize (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy Book 1)